CAMBRIDGE, Ill. — In the rural Heartland, as in thousands of small towns across the country, high school football is a pillar of local life.
But its survival is threatened. The number of young men is declining.
So a decade ago, Cambridge, Ill. — pop. 2,087, and shrinking — entered an agreement with nearby Woodhull to combine teams.
At first, the communities pushed back. The deal would force longtime foes to become teammates almost overnight. Residents worried that a merger would ruin the best parts of both teams, killing morale and the whole program with it.
But one stubborn fact left no other choice: Without a co-op, the schools wouldn’t have enough players to field teams.
“We depend on it,” said David Althaus, whose son plays on the football team and daughter marches in the band.
Ten years later, something remarkable has happened: The football program is thriving. This year’s team won its first five games and is poised for the playoffs.
The arrangement has birthed new traditions, including a new name: the Ridgewood Spartans, which borrows syllables from both sides.
Most amazing of all: The number of players in the program is increasing.
By shrinking thoughtfully, the Ridgewood Spartans have actually grown.
“As the co-op goes on, it gets better and better,” said Spartans head coach Bruce Redding.
As part of this four-month series on population loss, leaders at the municipal, county, regional, state and federal levels shared their thoughts on the problem.
The consensus: Population loss is not predestined and should be attacked and defeated.
But maybe there’s another way. Instead of fighting to reverse population decline, what if communities did something different: What if they accepted it as inevitable?
“Population loss isn’t a problem but a process that you need to manage properly,” explained David Peters, a sociologist at Iowa State University.
Many view population loss as a death sentence. But an emerging group of academics in Iowa and Illinois see the reality of shrinkage as a new lease on life — an opportunity for a community to reevaluate its priorities and plan for a pared-down future.
They call it “shrinking smart.” It’s the idea that a shrinking town might not gain back lost residents, but it can raise its quality of life. Instead of fixating on growth, shrink smart turns the conversation to well-being.
The idea is difficult, uncomfortable and counterintuitive. For some, shrink smart is just the pursuit of efficiency by a different name. Others might call it defeatist. But its champions insist it’s not just realistic but constructive.
“This is the future of municipal service,” said Norman Walzer, a researcher at Northern Illinois University. “It’s good governance.”
These researchers are careful not to start a self-fulfilling race to the bottom, in which shrink smart exacerbates a mindset of decline. They envision a future in which small Midwestern towns no longer fight forces they can’t change: globalization, automation and urbanization. Instead, towns can pool resources, consolidate institutions, invest in community groups and collaborate meaningfully.
Because, paradoxically, by shrinking smart, contracting communities can thrive — and perhaps even grow.
“We have a lot of optimism about their futures,” said Kimberly Zarecor, an architectural historian at Iowa State University, about towns with high quality-of-life standards despite historic shrinkage. “Some towns aren’t shrinking as much—or aren’t shrinking at all.”
Shrinking smart: a history
“Shrink smart” is a foreign import. The idea comes from Europe, where researchers have tried to chart a new course for cities coping with population loss.
Around 40% of large European cities are shrinking. Losses are most acute in Eastern Europe, which has undergone systemic change and economic decline since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Globalization has also been a catalyst, as towns struggle to bounce back after the decline of industry.
In America shrink-smart researchers are applying this framework of “managed decline” to towns in the Midwest.
“In the U.S., we have a growth mentality: The way to improve your community is to get a new factory, or more jobs,” explained Peters, the Iowa State sociologist. He and Zarecor are part of a research team studying small towns in Iowa. “The reality is that most small towns are going to continue to shrink.”
More than two-thirds of Iowa’s counties have shrunk since 2010. In Illinois, counties with fewer than 50,000 residents will lose about 2% of their residents by 2025, according to projections from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Losses will be steeper in the smallest and rural counties.
Those losses are due to out-migration, particularly working-age people moving away. Over the last century, work has concentrated in the cities. Globalization and automation have eliminated many jobs in agriculture and manufacturing, which are pillars of the Midwestern economy.
In America, shrink smart’s most famous case study is Youngstown, Ohio. In 1960, Youngstown had 166,689 residents. In 2018, it had just 64,958 — a 61% decline.
Almost 15 years ago, the city unveiled Youngstown 2010, a clear-eyed plan to prepare the city for shrinkage. The policy marked a new epoch in urban planning. Instead of promising growth, Youngstown’s leaders sought to downsize responsibly.
One of the plan’s features was demolition. The city has demolished some 3,000 houses since 2006, and thousands more are waiting. City planners have targeted some neighborhoods for redevelopment through murals, community gardens, reconverted parks, home rehabilitations and reinvestments. Others neighborhoods were less lucky, doomed for depopulation and demolition.
Some have criticized the plan for neglecting poor neighborhoods, which are expensive to redevelop and sometimes already depopulated. Others have emphasized that the city’s progress remains tepid and unfinished.
Indeed Youngstown lost around 2,000 residents between 2010 and 2018. But that’s better than the 15,000 lost between 2000 and 2010. And many residents who’ve stayed believe that the city has turned a corner.
How to see the future
In Youngstown and countless places in the Midwest, issues around population change remain urgent.
In the Quad-Cities metro area — which includes Henry County, Mercer County, Rock Island County and Scott County — some three dozen communities have fewer than 5,000 residents. Almost all are shrinking. Even the Illinois-side flagship cities of Rock Island and Moline are losing residents.
Before communities can pursue a solution, they have to admit there’s a problem. To help locals understand what’s happening, Walzer and Andy Blanke, a colleague at NIU’s Center for Governmental Studies, have created an interactive data tool loaded with information on cities, towns and counties across Illinois.
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The platform uses population projections to show how taxes, public spending and debt will change as a local population shrinks.
“If you run some numbers, and see how property taxes are going to increase, it could cause a number of people to think about this,” Walzer said. For everyday residents and governments, what’s at stake is their bottom line. “If you don’t do anything at all, you’re going to face significant property taxes,” Walzer added.
Population loss means fewer taxpayers and less tax revenue. Spending can’t always decrease proportionally, due to fixed costs and long-term contracts. The water facility, for example, can’t shrink in size even as fewer people request clean water.
In the long run, this means higher taxes.
Shrink-smart researchers aren’t ideologues or partisans. Their aim isn’t to push for a libertarian, small-government agenda but to arm citizens with facts so they can fight for good governance however a community defines it.
That might involve new government structures or new delivery systems for services or ideas that haven’t yet been proposed.
“If you really have pride of place, you don’t necessarily need to merge: You can co-op,” said Christopher Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. Co-ops can involve shared services, spaces, personnel or equipment. “There’s different ways of shrinking smart,” Merrett added.
Not all shrinking towns in the Midwest are alike. Some are hollowed out, economically depressed, demoralized.
But others are more complicated. Despite shrinkage, residents of other communities are more satisfied, more upbeat, their quality-of-life standards rising over time.
At Iowa State, the “smart shrinkage” team wanted to understand the differences between shrinking communities that are thriving (“shrink-smart towns”) and the ones that are withering (“declining towns”).
The team analyzed survey data collected since 1994 and traveled the state for interviews, examining Iowa towns of fewer than 10,000 residents in each of the state’s 99 counties.
Their results were surprising. On the whole, the two types of towns had remarkable similarities. Demographically, there were no statistical differences in the towns’ populations of minorities, the elderly or the less-educated.
Economically, there were also no differences in incomes or inequality, the researchers concluded. In fact, “smart” towns had fewer full-time and year-round jobs than in the declining towns.
Shrink-smart towns, on average, were smaller in population and larger in geographic size. They also had more children living in two-parent families; had better growth in goods-producing jobs, such as manufacturing and construction; had 13% higher median home values; and had more college graduates.
What mattered the most, though, was not economics or demographics but something softer: social capital—the network of relationships that hold together a community.
Shrink-smart towns rated their communities as friendlier, safer, more trusting, better kept-up, more supportive and more tolerant. They had traditions of local philanthropy and groups to institutionalize it. They had leaders who were open to new ideas. They didn’t stigmatize failure.
“In short,” the researchers concluded, “shrink-smart towns are viewed much more positively by residents than those in poorly shrinking ones.”
To be sure, shrink-smart towns face persistent challenges, and the declining towns aren’t doomed. Still, shrink-smart towns offer lessons.
A big one: Successful towns invest in community services, such as daycare centers or workout facilities. “People will drive in to access that,” Zarecor said. “If the quality is good, it helps to draw out-of-town people as well.”
In shrink-smart towns, needs are recognized by community groups, not government. Philanthropic organizations and other volunteer bodies bring the community together for events, giving residents something to do.
The events can vary — a magician, a concert, a sports league — and they often don’t require much funding. With successful social media marketing, another asset of shrink-smart towns, events can be a difference-maker, particularly for young children and the elderly.
The leading exemplar of a shrink-smart town near the Quad-Cities is Grand Mound, Iowa. The 611-person community in Clinton County has managed to maintain a relatively high quality of life despite ongoing population loss.
The town’s recent history has been full of setbacks: the closure of the local school, of the local grocery store, of beloved restaurants and bars. And, of course, there’s the shrinking population.
Yet, through it all, the town has retained its vibrancy. Mayor Kurt Crosthwaite has an answer for what’s behind it: “It’s the volunteers willing to put in the time.”
Led by the Community Club, volunteers still support everything, from the local fire department to holiday programming. “I don’t think people are worried,” Crosthwaite said. "If a house goes up for sale in town, it doesn’t seem to be up for sale for long. People want to come to Ground Mound.”
Shrink smart is already here
Over the past 15 years, the west-central Illinois area has seen some two dozen school consolidations. The trend isn’t expected to slow down. As small towns lose residents, district consolidation might save taxpayers money by reducing inefficiency.
That’s in addition to the sports co-ops such as the one between Cambridge and AlWood, arrangements that are gaining popularity. This year the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) reports more than 900 sports co-ops statewide.
Some shrinking schools are even switching to eight-man football. The Illinois 8-Man Football Association reports 16 schools with eight-man squads throughout the state.
In Illinois, a state with the third-highest number of public school districts in the U.S., some believe there’s more fat to trim. A 2016 report from the libertarian think tank Illinois Policy Institute concluded that Illinois could save up to $170 million annually by cutting the number of school districts in half. That’s in addition to as much as $4 billion saved in pension costs over the next 30 years.
Locally, other services are already consolidating. Scott and Rock Island counties are moving toward a shared emergency radio infrastructure, Quad-City P25 Radio Project.
Dispatching has already consolidated on both sides of the river. On the Iowa side, the Scott Emergency Communications Center, or SECC, provides joint dispatching in Scott County. In Illinois, QComm911 services Moline, East Moline, Silvis, Milan, Hampton and Rapids City.
For Walzer, this is the essence of shrink-smart policies. “It’s really about collaboration, not consolidation,” he said. “You have to have policies not just different by size, but different by type.”
For years economic development has buzzed about attracting companies through incentives such as business parks. But Peters, at Iowa State, pushed back.
“Those programs have a dismal success rate. They’re rarely successful,” he said.
Investments in daycare or wellness centers, he said, are more likely to benefit the community. And those investments don’t close the door to growth. Some residents might choose to live in a community because of those amenities.
“If you want to be a community that stops the downslide, the downward trend, you have to build up the social connections and social capital,” Zarecor said. Residents who leave and move back, she added, "are not coming back because they wanted a job. They come back for the social side of it."
Generating that social side is the name of the game. If there’s a consensus among shrink smarters, it’s this: hope is not lost. How a community chooses to respond to population loss makes a world of difference.
“Embrace that you’re shrinking,” Peters advised. “It’s not defeatism to invest in the town and its quality of life.”